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The Golden Crusader [MultiFormat]
eBook by Linda Langwith

eBook Category: Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: When Gemma Ravenscroft returns to Yorkshire, she finds meddling friends, old enemies and a Swat team on her cottage grounds. To complicate matters, a ghostly friend, Hugh de Montfort, tumbles Gemma into trouble more than once. Dr. Alec tends to her bruises while she endures lectures from the mysterious Max.

eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books, Published: 2004
Fictionwise Release Date: January 2005


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"The Golden Crusader is a well-written novel, which pulls the reader gently and willingly into its world ... all but the most stubborn readers will refuse to be guided along on this supernatural thriller's twisting and intriguing journey."--Russel D. McLean, The Crime Scene


Chapter One

Damn! I forgot about the moorland sheep. As the headlights picked them out in the rain I pumped the brakes and found myself spinning around in the middle of the splash that ran across the bottom of the road as it dipped into the valley. My head connected with the steering wheel and the sheep scrambled into the darkness like unrepentant woolly ghosts.

Feeling a fool for not wearing my seatbelt, I sat there for a few minutes, dazed from the blow. Clutching the steering wheel to stop my hands from shaking, I tried to start the car. To my dismay, the motor groaned over a few times and then died with a cough, leaving me in darkness. Between the rain and the splash, the points must be soaked. Well, there was nothing for it but a hike along the deserted track which would lead me to the cottage I was now to call my home. I clambered out of the car, stepping gingerly into six inches of icy water, rummaged in the trunk for my suitcase and knapsack, slammed the lid shut and spun around in surprise when I heard a deep voice behind me.

"I say, are you alright?"

"I will be if you get that flashlight out of my eyes," I snapped, feigning annoyance to cover my fear.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you," he spoke reassuringly in a soft Scottish brogue. "Look's like you've come a cropper here," he went on, surveying the scene of the disaster, my car becalmed in the middle of the little stream and me, bedraggled, clutching my luggage like an abandoned waif.

"I can't start the car," I explained, stating the obvious. "Wet points," I added, dredging up my minimal knowledge of the inner workings of the automobile to pretend that I knew something and was not a helpless female.

"Look, let me give you a tow," he offered. "I've got the Range Rover. Do you have far to go?" This time he kept the flashlight off my face.

"To the end of the track, Puffin's Reach, by the sea cliffs," I explained as the rain found its way down the back of my neck in little icy fingers, tickling and tormenting.

"Oh, Meghan McCarthy's old place. Temple Cottage. You must be Gemma Ravenscroft," my stranger announced, surprise in his voice.

"Word does get around, doesn't it?" I said somewhat sarcastically, feeling uncomfortable with the realization that I couldn't be anonymous, slink back home unnoticed and hide like a shy hermit in a beehive hut on the edge of forever.

"Well, you know what these little villages are like," replied my benefactor with a chuckle, dismissing the awkward moment, ignoring my defensiveness. "Look, hop in the Rover. You're getting soaked out here. I'll hitch the car up and we'll be off," he suggested. "By the way, I'm Alec MacRae, the local doctor," he added, taking my knapsack and suitcase and throwing them in the back seat.

I was glad to take his advice, for I was wet and shivering. Clambering into the front, I noted with some amusement the stethoscope casually thrown on the floor, along with a pair of muddy gumboots and a raincoat. This was more like a vet's car than the local doctor's.

After a little manoeuvring, we were soon on our way, bumping and rattling along what could barely be called a road, my car bouncing behind like an unwelcome appendage. He was totally focused on his driving, demanding enough on such a terrible night, and in the darkness I could scarcely make out my benefactor's features, though the hands which gripped the steering wheel were strong and sinewy.

Finally the road diverged and we took the turning on the right, shortly reaching the farm gate that opened onto the path leading along the sea cliff which would bring us to the cottage. Alec quickly got out of the Range Rover, struggling against the wind, which threatened to tear the door from his hand, and opened the gate with the help of the light from the headlamps, then climbed back into the warmth of the car.

Temple Cottage was soon in sight, sitting bravely in an uncompromising position on the point, sheltered in part on the north side by a clump of wind-sculpted pines. For the first time since I made the decision to return I was happy within myself, my doubts stilled. I felt I was truly coming home, though there would be no feast for the prodigal daughter, no celebration. I wouldn't want it any other way.

"Tell me Gemma, why's it called 'Temple Cottage'?"

"My Gran told me the house was built on the remains of a preceptory founded by the Knights Templar. When the Order was disbanded, their temple and the other buildings were demolished and the cottage was eventually built on top of the remains. For some reason the name stuck and it's been called 'Temple Cottage' ever since," I explained, my excitement mounting as we parked by the front door.

The wind whipped around the walls of the cottage, the rain biting into me as I fumbled for the key above the lintel. Alec shone the flashlight on the lock while I inserted the key and remembered to give it a little wiggle before turning it sharply to the right. And then we were in.

I switched on the lights, grateful to be out of the darkness, shut the door behind us and savoured my homecoming. Bless Mrs. Bains, the village grocer. The cottage was readied for my coming, just as she promised. In the lounge which opened out from the little hall by the front door there was a fire laid in the grate and plenty of firewood, both kindling and logs, in a basket by the side of the hearth. I went into the kitchen and peeked in the tiny fridge: it was thoughtfully stocked with butter, milk, cheese, eggs and bacon, while two fresh loaves of bread stood on the counter. The cupboard held tea and coffee, sugar and tins of soup and stew, plenty to see me through the first few days of my return. A bowl of golden apples adorned one of the shelves while a pot of bronze chrysanthemums glowed on the table.

Remembering I was not alone, I turned to my Good Samaritan. "Would you like some coffee?" He had followed me into the kitchen.

"That would be lovely," he answered, helping me off with my jacket which he hung on one of the hooks on the back of the kitchen door, placing his anorak on the hook beside it, as if the two belonged together, always hanging there, quite matter-of-factly. "But first let me look at your forehead. That's quite a gash you have," he said, drawing me over to the light that hung above the stone sink, lifting my reddish blond hair gently off my forehead. I reached up, touched the sore spot with my hand, and winced. My fingers came away covered in blood. I wasn't aware of the pain until now, the sight of my blood seeming to intensify and focus it.

"I'll just get my bag," he said, and went out the back door to the Range Rover. "Sit on the stool," he ordered when he returned, bringing a gust of cold air into the room like an unwelcome guest. Alec gently cleaned the wound with disinfectant and then surveyed the damage, shaking his head. "I'm afraid this will need stitches. I'll put in some freezing," he explained, reaching for his case before I could protest.

I cringed inwardly, hating needles, hating fuss, wanting, like an injured animal, to hide alone in my den with the pain, but submitted just the same, quite the obedient child, watching his face while he worked with deft fingers. I liked what I saw. His hair was short, black and curly, dishevelled by the wind and rain. His eyes, a pleasing oval shape, were bright blue with white flecks around the pupils like the foam on top of the waves. His eyebrows were dark and arched like gull wings. The mouth was generous, with little smile lines in the corners. He needed a shave, the stubble on his cheeks and chin giving him a delightfully scruffy look. He looked to be about thirty but I was never very good with ages. Quite focused on his work, he seemed unaware of my scrutiny and then his eyes caught mine and he smiled, showing even white teeth. I lowered my eyes quickly, embarrassed at being caught out, feeling my cheeks flush.

"There, all finished," he announced. "I'll just put a plaster on it. You'll have to come to my surgery in a week's time to have the stitches out. Here's a packet of painkillers just in case," he added, slapping a small envelope on the table. "Now let's have that coffee."

Alec lit the fire in the lounge while I busied myself making the coffee in the bodum, and then we sat down on the sofa opposite the fireplace, steaming mugs warming our hands, enjoying the warmth as the flames took hold, snapping and sparking.

"You're not from around here, are you?" I looked at him, curious, breaking the silence which had sprung up between us.

"Well, no. How did you guess?" He took a sip of his coffee, his eyes suddenly watchful, guarded.

"Your accent gives you away. It's funny that Gran never wrote to me about you. She was always interested in outsiders, though she stopped writing when she became ill." I sat cross-legged and leaned back into the soft comfort of the sofa.

"Your grandmother was one of old Doc Merriweather's patients. He's retired now and I've taken over his practice. I'm from Gairloch originally. I suspect I'll still be called an 'outsider' when I've been here twenty years," he smiled. "Speaking of accents, you seemed to have lost yours. I detect a distinct North American flavour." His knee touched mine as if by accident and, more purposefully, he placed his arm across the back of the sofa. I looked at the bowl of seashells on the coffee table, reluctant to meet his eyes.

"I deliberately lost it. I needed to blend with the natives. Protective coloration to avoid too many questions," I explained briefly, not sure I wanted to tell this perfect stranger anything, though sometimes it is easier to talk to someone who doesn't know you, like the anonymous priest in the confession box.

"Well, I'll try not to ask you too many questions," he laughed, then looked at me quizzically over the rim of his coffee mug. "But tell me, what brings you back here to this isolated spot?"

I glanced at the flames, wondering how much I should share. He touched me gently on the shoulder, as if to encourage me.

"I guess it was Gran leaving me her cottage and some money in her Will. That made it possible to come back. I suppose I never really felt comfortable anywhere else. I'm not a city type. I need the openness of the moor and the sound of the sea." It sounded silly, but it was how I felt.

He interrupted. "I know the feeling. York is just about the right size for me. There's no way I'll go near London," shaking his head as if to emphasize the point.

"Are you afraid of getting mugged?" I was surprised, for he seemed so strong.

"No. I can handle myself that way. It's just the sheer number of people, the crush of cars and the fact that there's never any silence and it's so hard to see the stars."

I knew exactly what he meant.

"Maybe you could help me push the car into the shed at the side of the cottage. I'll get someone from the local garage to come out tomorrow and get it started," I said with an involuntary yawn, suddenly feeling the effects of a long plane flight from Vancouver and the eight-hour time difference.

"You stay right where you are, or better yet, get yourself into bed. I'll take care of the car," he replied firmly, standing up, his six foot two frame almost reaching the low beamed ceiling.

"I can't thank you enough for all your kindness tonight. I would've been in a real mess if you hadn't come along," I said, tentatively touching his arm as we moved into the kitchen, returning the coffee mugs.

"That's alright. What are Good Samaritans for anyway? I'll just unhitch the car and then I'll be off. I was coming from a patient when I ran into you and I've another one on my list to visit beyond the village. Remember about the stitches. And here's my card. Phone me if you get a headache or any dizziness, okay?"

I nodded dutifully, taking the card and placing it on the kitchen bench beside the coffee mugs. Quite unexpectedly, he leaned down, cupped my face in his hands and kissed me full on the mouth. Then, without a word, he took his coat off the peg and closed the back door behind him before I was even able to blush, leaving me both puzzled and pleased. I hadn't been kissed with quite such passionate intensity before and I realized, to my surprise, that I rather enjoyed it.

Putting Alec out of my mind, I looked around at the cottage, delighted with everything. Gran made some changes and they were for the better. The dining room and lounge were transformed into one enormous space by removing some of the walls, leaving the supporting uprights, thick posts of oak, to form inviting archways between the different areas. The original uncompromising slate floor remained in the kitchen and the front hall while pale beech wood planks stretched throughout the lounge and dining room, accented by delicately patterned India area rugs in the seating areas. A bank of windows across the far wall looked out over the darkness of the sea and the night.

The space was broken by a comfortably cushioned window seat with bookshelves on either side, filled with assorted volumes, and by a simple wooden writing desk placed slightly off to one side. The only heaviness came from the oak ceiling beams, stained dark with wood smoke, but they were reassuringly solid and gave a pleasing contrast to the light and airy effect of the room whose plastered walls were painted creamy white with just a hint of yellow. The fireplace, made of weathered grey stone, thrust itself up along the other wall, open to living room, dining room and kitchen. Gran hadn't bothered to have central heating installed, perhaps because the fireplace always did such a wonderful job of warming the cottage. I didn't mind, for I loved the labour involved in making a fire. If all that was needed to be warm was the flick of a thermostat I wouldn't appreciate it as much.

I took my suitcase upstairs to the bedroom overlooking the sea at the back of the cottage. This was my room whenever I stayed with Gran. The rain ceased and the moon spilled opal light across the floorboards. I opened the window and listened to the incessant susurration of the sea as the waves sucked back and forth across the shingle at the base of the cliff. Pulling the pale yellow curtains across, shutting out the night, I turned on the light and looked around the room. It was just as I remembered it, simply furnished with a single bed, covered with a puffy European duvet, a plain birchwood night table adorned with a small hurricane lamp and a bookcase under the window containing a few children's books, some shells and interesting smooth stones I'd gathered from the beach below, the detritus of my childhood. Too tired to undress, I tumbled into bed and drew the thick duvet around me, welcoming the oblivion of sleep.

George, the village mechanic, arrived the next morning.

"Where did you buy this heap of junk?" He lifted his head from under the hood to pause in his tinkering with the inner workings.

"At a garage by the airport outside of Manchester. The guy said it was reliable," I replied, shivering in the early morning breeze coming off the water.

"He probably thought you were a rich American with plenty of brass and no brains," laughed George, straightening up and wiping his thick-fingered hands on an oily rag. "Look Gemma, because you're one of us, even though you don't sound like it anymore, and because one of your own countrymen cheated you, I'll take this pitiful excuse for a car off your hands and give you a sturdy little Ford Escort I've been working on that'll get you over the bumps and potholes out here. I know a bloke who'd probably buy this one once I've fixed it up. What do you say, lass?"

"Alright, you're on," I agreed, relieved to be baled out. George must be at least sixty now and still running the local garage. His hair was grey and thinning on the top but to compensate he had grown a trim, neat beard. He'd put on a bit of weight since I last saw him too. He came into the kitchen to wash up at the sink while I made him a sandwich to have with a mug of tea. We sat down at the little scrubbed oak table in the kitchen.

"You haven't changed a bit. You look the same as when you were thirteen," he said, munching contentedly on the sandwich. "Same gorgeous hair and dark blue eyes men would die for," he added. "You should be married now with half a dozen kids to look after. There're quite a few eligible blokes around here, by the way," he added with a mischievous grin, "starting with the local doc."

"Since when did you get into the matchmaking business?" I countered, feeling my cheeks burn with embarrassment. He chuckled good-naturedly and offered to give me a lift into the village.

"No, it's alright. I don't need anything at the moment and when I do I'll just come in on Gran's bike. I can pick up the Escort then," I explained.

"Sounds to me, Miss Gemma, that you're afraid to show your face again. It wasn't your fault what happened, your mum having the accident and all that. You were just a kid. It was your dad who was misbehaving," he said, putting his foot in deeper with every word.

Oh God, would they never forget? Maybe I shouldn't have come back. He wouldn't let it go.

"How long have you been away?"

Damn him! Couldn't he see that I didn't want to dredge up the past?

"Thirteen years," I replied curtly, wishing he would talk about anything else.

Yes, thirteen years of exile, first staying with my uncle and aunt in Ottawa, both frightfully correct and terribly strict, Uncle Harry being the Communications Officer in the British Embassy. Then I was off to university and grateful freedom at last. It seemed like another lifetime ago, though the wounds were still fresh, still unhealed below the surface.

"Well, I'll be going now. I'll have the car all ready for you when you get your courage up," said George, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and bringing me back to the present.

His pick-up truck bumped down the track, towing the Morris Minor behind. It was a relief to be alone again.

I cleared away the lunch things, washed the few dishes and then decided to sort through Gran's books. Mrs. Bains had given her clothes to the church jumble sale and I was relieved to be spared that task. Somehow, books were more impersonal, whereas one could still see the shape of the individual in their clothes, still smell their scent. Gran always smelled of lavender, lavender and the sea.

Temple Cottage stood as a refuge for me as a child, a place where I was accepted and cherished; its three-foot thick stone walls a bastion against the buffeting of the world. When things were not going well at home there was always a room waiting for me at Temple Cottage and someone to listen to my troubles. Though very few people knew it, for Gran was a modest person, she was a designer of greeting cards, basing each one on delicate watercolours she did of sea and moor, completing them with thoughtful epithets, none of which could be classified as great poetry, for they were too transparent, their meanings too obvious. That they brought pleasure to many was evident in the financial success her enterprise brought her, a success which now directly benefited me.

I boxed the books I didn't want and put the rest back on the shelves. There would be room for my own rather eclectic collection when my trunk arrived. My head was aching and I suddenly longed to go down to the beach.

Donning my boots, warm parka and polar fleece toque, for it was early in December and very cold, I shut the kitchen door at the side of the house and passed through the spacious patio sheltered from the wind by sturdy stone walls. A little lean-to greenhouse stood against the wall of the cottage, empty pots and trays piled in a jumble on the shelves. Along one of the walls of the patio was a raised box garden where a few Brussels sprouts plants still sported some leafy little cabbages. A whiskey barrel, cut in half and filled with herbs, lavender, parsley, thyme and sage, sat against the wall. Their scent followed me as I brushed against the leaves. Letting myself through the patio gate, I found the footpath, little more than a sheep track, which led precariously along the edge of the cliff.

The sky was a brilliant blue with just a few wisps of high cirrus like the white feathers of swans, and the sea flashed and sparkled below, beckoning me. Thick gorse grew on either side of the path, a prickly hand-hold in case of a slip. The wind shaped and carved the bushes just as it bent the pines that sheltered around part of the cottage. There was no mercy in the wind here.

I took the turning that would lead down to the beach. I forgot how steep the path could be in parts and the loose shale made for a slippery descent. A couple of times my feet threatened to shoot out from under me. Finally, I reached the base of the cliff where rivulets of black basalt rock poured across the beach. The waves had taken the shingle and sculpted it into undulating mounds like the back of a stone dragon. I remembered that when the tide was out there was a delicious strip of soft, golden sand beyond the shingle, which in summer would be warmed by the sun. When the tide came back in over it, the temperature of the water was almost bearable for swimming.

I spotted the old boathouse, snugly placed above the high water mark. Gran maintained it well over the years. The whitewashed stone walls and slate-shingled roof showed little signs of weathering. I scrambled over the rocks to reach it, took the key out of my pocket and undid the padlock. The doors swung open easily on well-oiled hinges and there, to my delight, was 'Serendipity', Gran's little clinker rowboat. The long polished oars stood on their place along the wall, ready and eager. I need only to haul the boat down the concrete slip in front of the boathouse and launch it in the shelter of the cove. The wind dropped and as long as I didn't go out beyond the point I should be safe enough. I remembered the current just beyond the rocks. I could see it boiling out there as it met the incoming tide, ready to carry an unsuspecting boat clear down the coast.

The water threatened to spill over the top of my boots as I pushed the boat into the surf. Clambering aboard, I put the oars in the oarlocks and was off, pulling hard, feeling the thrill as the oars bit into the water and the boat surged along. I thought I would take it out almost to the point and then let it ride the waves back in, just as I did with Gran countless times. We would fish then, for cod or sole, letting the line troll behind us. Sometimes we'd set out the crab trap too. Then we'd have fish for our supper, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried in butter. I could almost taste the memory of it.

The waves slapped the side of the boat and the gulls, wailing banshees, screeched and whirled above me. Temple Cottage looked down from its lofty perch on the headland, becoming smaller as I headed further out. I felt at one with the sea, my boat a sea horse and I its rider, and I knew within myself that I was truly happy.

As I went further out into the bay the wind came up, frothing the tops of the waves, swirling my hair into my eyes and 'Serendipity' rose to meet the challenge. I forgot how quickly the weather could change here. Before I knew it, the swells were growing higher, the troughs deeper, and it became a struggle to keep the bow pointed into the waves.

The spray was foaming over the bow now and I could taste the salt on my lips. It bit into the blisters forming on the palms of my hands as I fought the oars that seemed to have developed a will of their own. My shoulders and arms ached with the effort. I knew I would have to turn the boat sharply around and head back to the beach but as I dug the right oar in hard a giant swell caught the gunwale and turned the boat over in a sickening roll, taking me under with it.

Sputtering and struggling to kick off my boots, and rendered almost breathless by the terrible coldness of the water, I found to my horror that I was trapped underneath the boat. I managed to grab the thwart and like a wild thing I filled my lungs with air as if it would be my last breath. Another wave came and pitched the boat partly off me. I clutched desperately at the gunwale with aching hands, trying to push it up and right the boat but the swell sucked it away from me and I made a desperate grab for the oars as they sloshed passed, ripped out of the oarlocks.

What a fool I was to have come out without a lifejacket! There were two, hanging neatly in the boathouse. I knew that little piece of stupidity could cost me my life. As I rose on the crest of the waves I could see 'Serendipity' being pulled further out, beyond the bay, just as I was. The current was taking us inexorably away and with it any chance to save myself. Fear came upon me and settled in my mind like some dark, heavy beast. I did not want to die.

It was so cold. The icy water seemed to suck the warmth from the very core of my body. My hands were numb, but somehow I knew I must hang on to the oars. I felt that if I let go then I would be finished, drowned like a seabird in a storm and washed up on the beach in a tangle of sea wrack.

I'd lost sight of the shore now. Even as I rose with each wave, all I could see were more and more waves. It seemed so hopeless, such a waste. I felt myself beginning to give up, to let go. What did it matter, anyway? And then I started to pray. Psalm 23 came unbidden and I said it to myself like a mantra, I who ceased to pray since my father, the village preacher, betrayed everything he stood for and disgraced the collar he wore.

I don't know how long I was in the water. I only knew that I wanted to sleep. How easy it would be, simply to close my eyes, just to dream my life away in a little sleep. It would all be over, the painful memories washed away, the past obliterated. Then, above the buffeting whoosh of the wind and the suck of the waves I heard a peculiar sound, like the roar of a dragon. I saw a grey shape which, as I bobbed up and down, seemed almost like a mechanical whale. Coming toward me, smacking the waves, was a zodiac!

Beyond caring, as if in a dream, I watched as a man in a black wetsuit rolled off the side of the boat and swam over to me. He placed an orange ring over my head and under my arms and I could feel myself being hauled over to the zodiac while I struggled to hang onto the oars. I may have lost 'Serendipity' but there was no way I was going to lose the oars too.


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